by Tom Isler | July 01, 2007

illustrationOn a Tuesday afternoon in April, after a final makeup and wardrobe check, Philip Elias took his seat beneath the glowing lights at the WQED studio in Pittsburgh. Elias, CEO and executive producer of Velocity Broadcasting, along with Thomas Baldwin, president and CEO of Chicago-based Morton’s Restaurant Group, and others, had assembled in the studio to talk about the private satellite-broadcasting network that they had built into nearly 70 Morton’s The Steakhouse restaurants across the country. The panel’s mediator, local news anchor Darieth Chisholm, took her mark in front of the cameras and waited for the director to signal that she was on the air.

Just after 2 p.m., with a flourish of music and graphics, Chisholm’s image appeared in high definition on nine-foot screens inside the boardrooms of Morton’s restaurants nationwide. A total of 600 attendees, snacking on hors d’oeuvres, watched and listened as Chis-holm’s voice resonated in surround sound, introducing the afternoon’s agenda. Over the course of the subsequent hour, the panelists extolled the virtues of satellite broadcasting as an innovative communications tool for meeting planners. For a few minutes, before the live transmission ceased, the panelists entertained questions from attendees, who called in on their cell phones from coast to coast.

When Pittsburgh-based Velocity first beamed a satellite feed to a Morton’s boardroom in 2005, it joined the ranks of several other satellite technology companies that offer broadcast services directly to meeting planners.

“It’s such a great way to get the message out to such a large audience on one night,” says Jennifer Bruinooge, senior manager of meetings operations for ProActive Marketing Group, based in Upper Saddle River, N.J., which produced its first Velocity broadcast in June for a pharmaceutical client.

The appeal of the technology, which is more robust than traditional video-conferencing, is that planners can broadcast visually and aurally engaging presentations, often from key opinion leaders in their fields, to vast, geographically diverse audiences -- at hotels or restaurants or wherever screens can be set up and satellite downlinks established -- without requiring the attendees or the presenters to travel to a single meeting spot.

This has been a coup to meeting planners and marketing managers in several industries, particularly the medical and pharmaceutical fields. New drug launches, clinical research presentations and continuing medical education programs demand fast and broad dissemination of a consistent, often tightly regulated, message and are enhanced greatly by personal appearances from top physicians or researchers.

Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have launched a new product or presented new research about drugs by hosting a series of dinner meetings for physicians throughout the country, which can take months to complete and which some planners say have lost appeal in recent years. “It’s hard to get [doctors] to come to local dinner meetings anymore,” Bruinooge says. Satellite company executives believe that their events offer a cachet that local, one-off meetings can’t provide -- the thrill of participating in a live, nationwide event -- and thus are more likely to entice physicians to attend.

Producing an effective broadcast -- essentially a TV-quality talk show and a multiple-site meeting across several time zones simultaneously -- is a challenge. “It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid, as opposed to tugging at it,” says Mark T. Luckie, marketing associate for Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., a pharmaceutical firm that has produced broadcasts with Rosemont, Ill.-based Eventcom International, a division of Marriott. Eventcom’s satellite product, LaunchStar, was created largely to cater to the pharmaceutical industry.

Changing technology

Thanks in part to the digital satellite explosion in the late 1990s, which shrank both the cost and size of dishes, the technology is rapidly improving, and the support for broadcasts is broadening.

Now, companies are offering clients more ways to make the broadcasts interactive, patching in live telephone calls, accepting questions via fax, e-mail or text message, and providing attendees with audience-response systems, such as wireless keypad devices, that allow them to interact with presenters in real time.

The broadcasts can be streamed on the web or delivered to a dial-in phone service that allows listeners to hear the presentation from any phone, both as a way to reach new attendees or as a back-up system to the potentially tenuous satellite feed. Companies can archive the material online or burn it on DVDs to be included in future sales kits.

The satellite companies also offer a variety of post-broadcast services, from collating unanswered questions to conducting feedback surveys to, in the case of Eventcom, tracking physicians’ prescriptions to determine if the event changed their behavior.

Each company offers slightly different services with its broadcast package, but, for a price, each can closely approximate what the others provide.

One difference among satellite providers is the type and location of viewing venues they typically employ. Velocity is unique in having built-in infrastructure at Morton’s restaurants; most have to set up screens and downlinks at different venues, normally hotel meeting rooms, for each broadcast.

Other variables include the quality of the image; the kind of backup system used, if any, in case a satellite link can’t be established; the level of on-site support, and the extent of post-broadcast services. Velocity and Eventcom offer one point of contact for the entire event; others require planners to juggle more on their own.